Can ‘marketing and advertising’ shed its poor image?

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It is no secret that marketing & advertising is not held in high esteem when it comes to professions. A doctor or engineer is considered to be doing a more meaningful, cerebral job than an advertising or marketing professional. In my view, there is some truth in it. What it takes to become a doctor or engineer is a rigorous test of the intellect in terms of entrance exams and the degree course. In contrast, strictly speaking, there is no standard preparatory exam or a course to become an advertising professional. Sure, an MBA or a degree in advertising seemingly gives an edge, but such a degree is not mandatory to be successful in this line of business. In terms of value to society, saving a limb or life will always considered to be more ‘meaningful’ than being part of a team which markets soaps and noodles. It is common to see engineers who specialised in electrical or chemical engineering get an MBA in marketing, go on to make a career selling tea, candies and soft drinks or make ads for such. That also leads to ‘what a waste of education’ response in us. In contrast, a degree in medical science, law or accountancy usually leads to a career in related fields.

Needless to say, the role of marketing & advertising in business is critical. Commerce cannot function without these professions and it is not something to be ashamed of. Yet, the professions get lampooned in popular culture regularly and society doesn’t hold them in high esteem. They are considered low brow career options and overwhelming imagery is that of lies, flaky, superficial, questionable talent.


Common perceptions of the professions are that they tell lies, make people buy things they don’t need and promote vanity. Some of these perceptions are not entirely off the mark, driven largely by a few bad apples who give the entire industry a bad name. However, some of the things advertising is accused of is a bit unfair. Advertising exploits basic human nature and cannot change we are deep down, as shaped by millions of years of our existence. The practice of wearing a certain kind of amulet, pendant or gem stone to ‘ward off evil’ has been around for decades. Some seek out such options and patronise those who sell or recommend such. But when we see a tele-shopping ad which sells such a product we blame the marketing & advertising industry for peddling lies. The Indian society has traditionally preferred ‘fair skin’ and fairness creams exploit this attitude. I am not holding a brief for such products – I personally feel that advertising helps strengthen or further such wrong notions. But the point is that marketing of fairness creams is only exploiting a preference which already exists. Having said these, there are factors which will continue to fuel the poor perception of the industry:

The spin element: an element of spin is involved in all kinds promotion, be it a personal brand, local business, country brand or an FMCG brand. But when it comes to marketing & advertising, especially on mass media it is mostly equated with lies.

I believe advertising evokes four kinds of reactions:

– that is a plausible story, it moves me, I can relate to it: Google search ad, Cadbury Dairy Milk, Vodafone pug
– that’s obviously an exaggeration but it is fun: Centre Shock ad
– that is so far fetched, it is ridiculous: so many examples
– that seems to be a regular, boring ad… I will ignore it: a vast majority of advertising

No one believes that a deodorant is guaranteed to attract the opposite sex or wearing a particular brand of nightie evokes confidence. People are willing to accept a certain level of exaggeration and creative license but only when the idea ‘connects’ and conveyed in an entertaining manner (even if it is exaggerated). But when the idea is crass or the execution crosses a certain limit and veers into the ’ridiculous’ space (like the third reaction above) it gives the entire industry a bad name.

Non-promotion of positive aspects: the industry bodies haven’t done much to promote the positive aspects: e.g. the coming together of diverse specialist talents (from psychology to art to statistics) in the industry or the fact that what is involved is ‘disciplined creativity’ (as opposed to whacked out, uncontrolled madness) to solve a business problem. The contribution of marketing & advertising in social good is also not highlighted much. There are countless do-good missions which owe their success to marketing & advertising strategies

Stereotypes: some industry insiders project a stereotyped image of ‘ponytail, goatee and spaced out behaviour = creative person’.

Plain old BS: every industry has jargon and ‘technical’ language. When two doctors speak, the abbreviations they use or the specialist lingo is unlikely to be understood by the layman. The marketing & advertising industry does not have a unique technical language because there is a lot of subjectivity involved. If a client does not like a piece of creative, he can get away with vague feedback like ‘it does not have wow factor’.


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Attempting to be a science: Of late there is an attempt to paint the industry as a number-crunching, scientific, process-driven one. But as Bill Bernbach said years ago, the industry is fundamentally about an art.

Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.
– Bill Bernbach

There is industry-specific jargon but that only serves to complicate simple stuff and gets laughed at. It also leads to ‘liars’ and ’snake oil salesmen in shiny suit’ perceptions.

Ultimately, the industry has to blame itself for the perception. A certain amount of spin is at the heart of marketing & advertising (in a positive way) but when some take it to ridiculous levels it affects the entire industry.

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